About week ago, we arrived in Cairo and we were there for 36 hours. During that time, we went grocery shopping, we cleaned our filthy vacation rental, and Lydian and I enrolled in classes at Cairo University with a teacher we’ve been working with online since our time in Tunisia last year. Then, we packed up and flew to Amman for a “side trip” to Israel and Jordan.
These two countries, Israel and Jordan, are the last of the Middle Eastern countries that we’re willing to visit at this time. John has a coworker whose family lives in Lebanon and we’ve kicked around the possibility of going there for a homestay, but it seems too dangerous. The possibility of being kidnapped is too high. The potential rewards too low. As much as I’d love to see Beirut, just to have seen it…as much as I’d love to feel what it feels like to be in an unstable place like that (briefly), there’s no part of me that wants any of us to end up as hostages. Lebanon will have to wait.
And so, in a sense, we’ve done the full tour. We’ve seen the Middle East, at least as much as we can see without going into war zones. As we drove out of the tourist area in Petra, I couldn’t believe how familiar it all is to me. I’ve been to a Turkish bath. I’ve eaten lokum and baklava. I can read Arabic. I’ve covered my head and removed my shoes. We’ve heard the call to prayer in six different countries.
But still, there are parts of the Middle East that confound me. In Jordan, the men have been rude and chauvinistic the way they were toward Lydian and I in Tunisia. They stare at us too long and they don’t listen when we speak. Tonight, when we ordered room service, I was wearing a camisole when a young fellow brought the food up to our room. I didn’t think he’d come into our room, since culturally, this is a no-no. But he did. And I might as well have been naked. In most Middle Eastern countries, women don’t bare their elbows, wrists, or ankles. Wearing pants is a little risqué. Even prostitutes would never wear a camisole.
Last night, an Arabic man in a convertible waved, scoped, and called out at Lydian as we were walking back to our hotel and she’s been pissed off about it ever since. (Several times since she’s brought it up with a fiery gleam in her eye) Then this morning, to fan the flames, when she tried to help John get our car filled with gas (since she’s the one who speaks a little Arabic, while John might as well be a mute Arabic-wise), the gas station attendant flatly ignored her. Ignored Her: The Unworthy One with the Vagina.
I used to think that the male chauvinism in the Middle East had to do with Islam, but actually, it’s a Bedouin thing. In fact a lot of the frustrating aspects of Arabic society are traditions carried over from Bedouin culture. For example, female genital mutilation is a Bedouin tradition. It’s been adopted into the Arabic/Islam culture, but it started in pre-Koranic times. That doesn’t make it okay. And it doesn’t absolve Islam of its various flaws. It’s just an interesting fact.
Our culture has weird flaws too; juxtapositions of traditions that don’t really go well together, but that we accept readily, without thinking. Like Christmas trees. In Bethlehem, at the Church of the Nativity, there was a moderately-sized nativity scene on the roof under a gigantic Christmas tree. But the practice of decorating a tree in the winter is pagan and therefore un-Christian in a sense. It’s a ritual that has to do with Yule and the winter equinox. The pagan tree symbolizes eternity (because it’s evergreen) while the star on top symbolizes the return of the sun (an apt homophone that mixes smoothly with the Christian Return of the Son–the exact location where Jesus was supposedly born in the Church of the Nativity is covered with a golden sun, in fact) after months of diminishing daylight hours. Though, as a Christian, there’s really nothing wrong with decorating a tree for Christmas, if you were looking in at the Christian culture as a foreigner, it would look a little…funny.
To me, even as an American, it looks really funny in Bethlehem. And Jerusalem. And Rome. I mean, really? I expect a purer rendition of Christianity at the Vatican and in the Holy Land, but yes, Christmas trees are tradition. And it’s hard to think about our own traditions. We do traditions and let’s face it, most of them don’t make sense. We don’t think too much about them. Like Thanksgiving and turkeys, for example. Outside of the U.S., people struggle to understand Thanksgiving. What is it? Why do Americans do it? Our Arabic instructor thought that Thanksgiving was a religious holiday, but no, it’s not. Churches have services on Thanksgiving but Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the Bible, Jesus, or any other holy tradition. And, in fact, at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, they’ll tell you that the Thanksgiving story is a total myth. I know that because we went to Plymouth Plantation on Thanksgiving Day when Lydian was 3 years old thinking that we’d get to see a spectacular reenactment of two cultures working together for the common good, but alas, the Big Meal wasn’t a historical event. Thanksgiving was concocted in recent history to give American housewives the opportunity to display their domestic skills to the extended family. Thanksgiving comes from a time when women were under-appreciated and oppressed much as they are here in the Middle East. Thanksgiving gave the oppressed American woman an annual Time-to-Shine.
In the Middle East, things like female genital mutilation and the oppression of females become perpetuated through tradition. The idea that “this is what we’ve always done,” proves that what’s been done for centuries is right. Change comes slowly in families, in societies.
I try to keep an open mind about traditions in different cultures. I suspended my judgment of Arabic society before we visited these places. A number of books that I’ve read by American women anthropologists talk glowingly of things like the hijab and veiling. These anthropologists claim that the veil elevates women symbolically, but I’m sorry, the hijab is inconvenient and uncomfortable. I just can’t bring myself to like it or even accept it. It’s not stylistic, it’s oppressive.
Crossing the border from Israel to Jordan and crossing borders into Palestinian cities in Israel I couldn’t help but note the difference between Jewish females and their Palestinian counterparts. Israeli girls look tough. They’re all required to go into the military for two years after they complete secondary school. They carry guns and they know Krav Maga. But in contrast, the Palestinian women look fragile and even dull. I’ve read that after Arabic girls are “castrated” (a misnomer for a surgery that’s done around age 12 without anesthesia to scrape off the clitoris and in some cases sew the vagina shut), they’re often never the same. And you can see that. Many of them seem broken, lethargic, and disconnected. A lot of Arabic girls today are “castrated” before they hit puberty and in fact, Egypt is one of the places where the procedure is still practiced widely.
Every year, during our Halloween festival, I warn our volunteer actors to be wary of groups that
contain only men. A group of all men without at least one woman in their midst is more likely to become violent, destroy things, or generally cause problems. But in the Middle East, the whole society is made up of groups of men lacking a female voice. And the men are wreckless while the women are weak. The whole society has a general lack of organization and direction as a result.
I’m certain that I’m culturally biased. Everyone is culturally biased, but I’m not the only one whose noted the importance of mixing males with females in Muslim society. Bernard Louis would agree with me (he’s an expert on the Middle East, so maybe I’m the one agreeing with him). I feel strongly that the more powerful women become in the Middle East, the fewer wars there will be here and the more stable these countries will become. If nothing else changed here except the role of women in Middle Eastern society, the whole world would be a safer, more pleasant place. It’s not that the women hold the key. They can’t singularly solve the problems here either. But if the men and the women mix more and work together with greater equality, there would undoubtedly be less violence coming from this part of the world.
As I see it, terrorism is an expression of Mass Sexual Frustration. Mix the men with the women. Give the women a voice. Give them some power and Middle Easterners will stop strapping bombs to their chests and blowing themselves up in crowded places. (It would also help if the media didn’t sensationalize these things, but that’s an entirely different thought.) It has little to do with Islam. It has to do with the fact that men need women and women need men. Not just for sex, but for balance.